Ethics – Now & Then 22 – Avot 2:6

Avot 2:6  He [Hillel] used to say: A boor cannot be fearful of sin;
                an unlearned person cannot be scrupulously pious;
                the bashful person cannot learn, and the quick, impatient
                person cannot teach; anyone excessively occupied in business
                cannot become a student [of the Scriptures];
                and in a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.

He used to say: A boor [empty-headed man] cannot be fearful of sin;

Hillel is evaluating different characteristics that display a person’s regard for the Torah and his relationship to it, which also reflects his view of the One who gave His Word. He observes that the boor does not fear sin because he cannot grasp the concept of sin and its implications, which are addressed and clarified for mankind in the Torah. The Hebrew, bur, also means “an empty field in which nothing has been planted.” [1] No seeds of knowledge of God and His truth have been sown in his mind that could take root and flower.

In our Father’s great mercy and love for all His creatures, we know that He sows seeds of knowledge of Himself in unique and individual ways as well as in the wonder of His Creation. As the Psalmist describes: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1) and “The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge! Selah” (Ps. 50:6).

Perhaps, as in Yeshua’s parable of the sower, the seed is sown but if a heart is hard like stony ground, or if seed is lost or choked by thorns, it will not take root and grow and produce fruit (Lk.8:5-15).

A boor views life as a natural right, and believes that one should gain from it whatever will be to one’s physical advantage and benefit. In this context, it is worth considering a quote of Albert Schweitzer’s: “As soon as a man does not take his existence for granted, but beholds it as something unfathomably mysterious, thought begins.”

…an unlearned [in Torah] person cannot be pious [devout];

The Hebrew term translated here as ‘unlearned’ is am ha’aretz, a worldly person. He or she may have an awareness of God, and enough fear of sin to perform outward ‘religious’ duties, but if the majority of one’s focus and attention is on material matters and the “cares of the world” and time is not taken to study the Word devoutly in order to grow spiritually, a person will not grow in holiness and in intimacy with the Father.

When one does not learn and grow in understanding of the Almighty, through His eternal and Living Word of truth, one cannot devote oneself to walking more fully in harmony and accord with His good and perfect will.

…the bashful person cannot learn, and the quick, impatient person cannot teach;

The Sages generally praise the qualities of humility and quiet sensitivity. However, a negative and unhealthy form of shyness prevails when a person suffers from fear of embarrassment. In a classroom or learning situation this form of self-consciousness is a hindrance and will inhibit a student’s progress. If one is afraid to make mistakes and to ask questions when something is not understood, or in order to probe more deeply into a subject, answers will not be found and the opportunity to learn will have been lost.

Historically, and sadly, in church settings and in Christian education in general, the asking of questions was frowned upon and even strongly discouraged. For many centuries this caused a literal ‘Dark Ages’ in the Church in the area of learning and spiritual growth and resulted in a majority of am ha’aretz sitting silently bound in the pews. Happily, during the past century, with greater accessibility to the Word of God and the growing awareness and understanding of the Jewish Roots of Christianity and its restored Hebraic heritage, the heart of this silent majority again is being stirred and healthy questioning and dialogue are ensuing.

In connection with the “bashful” student, and likely the actual cause of bashfulness in many students, an impatient teacher who is easily angered will not teach effectively. Students will be afraid to enquire, fearing they will be rebuffed or scorned and little godly knowledge will be imparted or received.

…anyone excessively occupied in business cannot become a student [of the Scriptures];

When a person deeply values the Word of God and desires to grow in knowledge thereof, it becomes a high priority in his or her life. While the need to earn a living and to provide for the physical needs of life are obviously important and require diligent effort, the less obvious needs of the nurture and provision for the prospering of one’s spirit also require diligent care and attention.

…and in a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.

This Hebrew verse can translate directly as, “In a place where there are no men – anashim, strive to be a man – ish”. William Berkson offers a worthy modern translation, “In a place where there is no person to make a difference, strive to be that person.” [2] Which reminds me of an anonymous quote I saw recently, “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that, then I realized I was somebody!”

In Yiddish this type of human being – a caring, capable and responsibly aware person, who when he sees the right thing to do strives to do it – is called a mensch (rhymes with bench). One should purpose to be a mensch in every situation. Particularly when there is not another mensch to stand up and take responsibility, one should courageously do one’s best to do what needs to be done.

Leo Rosten describes a mensch in his classic, The Joys of Yiddish. “To be a mensch has nothing to do with success, wealth or status. …The key to being a real mensch is nothing less than character.” [3] He or she is simply decent and has a combination of an ethical backbone and a genuine transparency that reflects the light of their Creator in whose image they are made. May we be mensches…for His glory.



1. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol 1; 153
2. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 70
3. Leo Rostin, The Joys of Yiddish; 237

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